Thursday, April 26, 2007

Bill Moyers and the Topic du jour

"How hard I find it to see what is right in front of my eyes!"--Ludwig Wittgenstein

I agree with Greenwald; the report by Bill Moyers was excellent. He makes me proud to be from East Texas. The best people I knew there were just like him: people of quiet, respectful, steely decency and honor. People who aren't afraid of truth, and who aren't obsequiously deferential to power.

Like, say, Tim Russell. If you've watched the report, you know what I mean.

I also agree that little in the report was "new," in the sense of being previously unknown. But the spotlight on the Knight-Ridder reporters Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel, and their editor John Walcott, was enlightening and encouraging. Watching it, though, seemed like deja vu all over again, and not because of left blogistan. I happened to glance over at my bookshelf during the show, and right at eye level was a little volume I'd almost forgotten about. A book by Lewis Lapham: Theater of War. It wasn't that this book replaced Moyers' report. But, I realized, unless you have the mindset to question, unless you are, as Moyers' kept repeating, "skeptical," unless you are merely waiting for the phone to ring, as Tim Russell is, and the Truth to introduce itself and sit down on your TV show and fend off all your zingers and 'gotchas!' (because, after all, only then could we know it was the Truth), you first have to think differently in order to see what is in front of your eyes.

This is Lapham, for example, in 2002:

For the last four month the curators of the national news media have done their patriotic best to muffle objections to our worldwide crusade against terrorism, the editors of important newspapers removing contraband opinion from the manuscripts of well known polemicists, the producers of network talk shows softening the criticisms of American foreign policy for fear that they otherwise might be seen as displays of weak-mindedness if not as proofs of treason. I don't wonder why the watchers at the gate of freedom might want to keep a sharp lookout for suspicious substances at a time when some of them had recieved anthrax in the mail, but I didn't think that we were well on the way to a ministry of state propaganda until I came across "Defending Civilization," a guide to the preferred forms of free speech issued last November in Washington by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni....[This group, it turns out, is lead by Lynne Cheney, Martin Peretz, Irving Kristol, and William Bennett, and decries the lack of support for George W. Bush among college professors.]


Words pressed into the service of propaganda lose the name and form of meaning, a point of which I was reminded when, at about the same time I encountered the Washington tract, I happened to read The Psychology of War, a study of the ways in which human beings adjust their interpretations of reality in order to recognize the mass murder of other human beings as glorious adventure and noble enterprise. First published in 1992...the book, written by Lawrence LeShan, draws a distinction between the "sensory" and the "mythic" perceptions of war. Let war become too much of a felt experience, as close at hand as the putrid smell of rotting flesh or the presence of a newly headless corpse seated in a nearby chair, and most people tend to forget to sing patriotic songs. Much better for everyone's morale if the war takes place in a galaxy far, far away, in the mountains of high-sounding abstraction where only the enemy dies.
Theater of War, by Lewis Lapham (New York: The New Press 2002), p. 170-171, 174-175.

Mark Twain, of course, would agree. As would most traditional Christian doctrine. As John Walcott said to Bill Moyers:

A decision to go to war, even against an eighth-rate power such as Iraq, is the most serious decision that a government can ever make. And it deserves the most serious kind of scrutiny that we in the media can give it. Is this really necessary? Is it necessary to send our young men and women to go kill somebody else's young men and women?
The decision, however, as Moyers points out, as Lapham pointed out for years in the pages of Harpers, is made by people in Washington, by people in New York. Not, as Walcott noted, by the people who read the reports his reporters were publishing:

Our readers aren't here in Washington. They aren't up in New York. They aren't the people who send other people's kids to war. They're the people who get sent to war.
Decision making, in other words, is for the Beltway pundits; providing cannon fodder is what the people in flyover country are for. Moyers established that decisively last night. Lapham, as I say, had been saying it for years. Decisions about life and death are too important to be left to the people who will be doing the dying. But we don't like the way that sounds, so Tim Russell was at pains to prove up his "blue collar cred" with Moyers.

One can, of course, go 'round and 'round with this. Consider Mark Knoller's response to the report. He takes umbrage with Moyers' representation of the Washington press corps as a "conduit" for the White House; but he brings a knife to a gun fight:

Did we report what the President said about his case for war? Of course we did. That’s our job. Did we also report that his views were challenged or disputed by others? Absolutely. Were questions raised about the veracity of the president’s arguments? Certainly.
Atrios points out it's not clear where those questions were raised; certainly not at the press conference Moyers' referred to. I also recall Ted Koppel interviewing Jon Stewart at the GOP Convention in 2004, and telling Stewart that if a speaker were to stand up on the floor and claim Ted Koppel was a drug dealer, Koppel would obligated to report that without reply, because that's his job. The clear message was: someone else would have to "make news" by defending Koppel against the charge, and then Koppel could report that. In this way, Koppel defended the absolute inability of the Washington press corps to do the job Landay and Strobel did, which was to ask questions that didn't depend on someone else raising the point first. Indeed, this is the way "journalism" now gets done:

WALTER PINCUS: We used to do at the Post something called truth squading. --President would make a speech. We used to do it with Ronald Reagan the first five or six months because he would make so many-- factual errors, particularly in his press conference. PRESIDENT REAGAN: (3/6/1981) From 10 thousand to 60 thousand dollars a yearÂ…

WALTER PINCUS: And after-- two or three weeks of it-- the public at large, would say, "Why don't you leave the man alone? He's trying to be honest. He makes mistakes. So what?" and we stopped doing it.

BILL MOYERS: You stopped being the truth squad.

WALTER PINCUS: We stopped truth squading every sort of press conference, or truth squading. And we left it then-- to the democrats. In other words, it's up to the democrats to catch people, not us.

BILL MOYERS: So if the democrats challenged-- a statement from the president, you could-- quote both sides.

WALTER PINCUS: We then quote-- both sides. Yeah.

BILL MOYERS: Now, that's called objectivity by many standards isn't it?

WALTER PINCUS: Well, that's-- objectivity if you think there are only two sides. and if you're not interested in-- the facts. And the facts are separate from, you know, what one side says about the other.
As Charles Hanley pointed out, facts are damned inconvenient things; and sometimes, in the relationship of reporter and audience, reporters are the only ones with the facts:

CHARLES HANLEY: What we did was-- go out everyday with the inspectors. These guys would roar out on these motorcades at very high speed and roar through towns and do sudden U-turns and-- and drive over land and do all of these things to confuse the Iraqis about where they were going-- so that there wouldn't be a call ahead telling-- telling them to put away all the bad stuff.

CHARLES HANLEY: The inspectors then would issue a daily report. And-- as it turned out, of course, inspection after inspection, it turned out to be clean. They had nothing to report, no violations to report.

BILL MOYERS: In January of '03 Hanley wrote about the suspicious sites that the us and British governments had earlier identified as major concerns. "No smoking guns in...Almost 400 inspections." He reported. It ought to have cast serious doubt on the white house's entire evaluation of the iraqi threat. But reporting like this was overshadowed by the drumbeat from Washington -- which is why, Hanley says, sometimes his editors balked when he wrote that the White House lacked firm evidence on WMDS.

CHARLES HANLEY: And that would be stricken from my copy because it would strike some editors as a-- as tendentious. As sort of an attack or a-- some sort of-- allegation rather than a fact. You know and we don't want our reporters alleging things. We, you know, we just report the facts. Well it was a fact. It was a very important fact that seemed to be lost on an awful lot of journalists unfortunately.

BILL MOYERS: Six weeks before the invasion, with the facts still in short supply, the American Secretary of State went before the United Nations.

COLIN POWELL (UN Security Council 2/5/03): I cannot tell you everything that we know. But what I can share with you, when combined with what all of us have learned over the years, is deeply troubling.

CHARLES HANLEY: One major problem was that-- Secretary Powell barely acknowledged that there were inspections going on. It got to ridiculous points such as-- his complaining about the fact that they'd put a roof over this open air shed where they were testing missiles.

COLIN POWELL (Security Council 2/5/03): This photograph was taken in April of 2002. Since then, the test stand has been finished and a roof has been put over it so it will be harder for satellites to see what's going on underneath the test stand.

CHARLES HANLEY: What he neglected to mention was that the inspectors were underneath, watching what was going on.

COLIN POWELL (Security Council 2/5/03): A single drop of VX on the skin will kill in minutes. Four tons!

CHARLES HANLEY: he didn't point out that most of that had already been destroyed. And-- on point after point he failed to point out that these facilities about which he was raising such alarm-- were under repeated inspections by-- by good-- expert people with very good equipment, and who were leaving behind cameras and other monitoring equipment to keep us-- a continuing eye on it.
Powell failed to note it; and then reporters failed to note it. But of the two parties, which one do we expect to be telling us the truth? Which leads me back, briefly, to Mr. Knoller:

Were questions raised about the veracity of the president’s arguments? Certainly.
I'd love some examples.

But to charge that the White House press was “compliant” and cheered the President’s arguments for war plainly misrepresents the facts.
Seeing as the reporting as Moyers presented it, and I think his presentation was at least fairly accurate, leads directly to the conclusion that that's precisely what happened, I'd like to know what facts were actually misrepresented. Because failure to act is itself an action.

The last word on this should be left to John Walcott:

You know, we're sending young men and women, and nowadays not so young men and women, to risk their lives. And everyone wants to be behind them. And everyone should be behind them. The question for us in journalism is, are we really behind them when we fail to do our jobs? Is that really the kinda support that they deserve? Or are we really, in the long run, serving them better by asking these hard questions about what we've asked them to do?
And to Wittgenstein:

"When you bump against the limits of your own honesty it is as though your thoughts get into a whirlpool, an infinite regress: You can say what you like, it takes you no further."

What we are seeing is the limits of the honesty of many journalists. And it's not doing anybody any good.

No comments:

Post a Comment